Land right under attack in Lama: relief or compensation cannot be remedy

Reng Young Mro 

On 26 April 2022, a private company named “Lama Rubber Industries Limited” has torched the traditional Jum cultivation lands belonging to the villagers of Langkom Mro Para, Joy Chandra Tripura Para and Rengyen Mro Para of Soroi Union under Lama Upazila of Bandarban Hill District. The sign board that has been erected at the site occupied by the company reads: Joint Rubber Cultivation Project categorically showing the Lama Rubber Industries Company as the owner.

A group of culprits numbering 15 to 20 set fire in the lands at the direction of Md. Kamal Uddin, Director of the company. This blazed the sources of livelihood, Jum farm lands and funeral sites belonging to some 40 families of three indigenous villages dwelt by the Mro and Tripura indigenous people. With this, the indigenous communities fell prey to irreparable loss.

The hind motive that led to setting fire in plantations and forest lands is to occupy the lands by eviction of the actual owners of the lands.

Investigation reveals that this Lama Rubber Industries Company is trying to occupy the lands of indigenous peoples by resorting to gross irregularities, corruption and fraudulence. However, concrete information about the company, such as, date of its establishment, office address and number of shareholders remained unavailable during the investigation. It is known from the on-the-spot investigation report at the land office of Lama upazila that the Lama Rubber Industries Limited company was enlisted under illegal indulgence as per Memo no. Rubber F-2/98/-586 –(24/11/1994) issued by Office of the Deputy Commissioner of Bandarban district.

The anarchical activity and illegal land occupation of the land robbers came to existence since long while putting the billboards of Lama Rubber Industries, Meridian, etc. companies under direct or indirect support and assistance of the civil and military administration. The multi-faceted crisis under which the indigenous peoples have been leading life for at least one decade therein includes: getting entangled in fabricated cases, threatening of life, intimidation by inciting goons with batons, issuance of injunctions on livelihood collection of forest resources and even threatening of eviction by the army and law & order agencies. The indigenous villagers submitted their appeal to various officials serving at different levels of the administration, in order to protect their own villages, homesteads, sources of livelihood and the forest lands, for long time. Under severe financial constraints, three village Heads walked to the offices for day after day with a hope of solution. But the solution to the crisis remained unattainable.

The Lama Rubber Industries Company that claims itself to be owner of Jum lands of the local inhabitants by merit of lease taken from the District Administration possesses transparent and legal ownership over none of the lands. Since, as per the existing laws, customs, practices and procedures in CHT, the actual ownership of the lands is vested with the Mro and Tripura villagers. They have been living there and in occupation of those lands for the ages and generations together.

Even being so, the Lama Rubber Industries Company is preventing the villagers from practicing the Jum cultivation, their livelihood earning and gathering of materials for regular use from the forest. They have warned the villagers with threat of eviction from their locality. The company meted out harassment to the simple-minded indigenous villagers by entangling them in false cases and is all set to drive them away from their homesteads under intimidation of police cases and actions.

For instance, one Moqbul Ahmed filed a case against 10 indigenous villagers on false allegation of extortion, illegal trespassing, beating, theft and threat of killing, the case number of which is No.6/34.

As the harassment continued to escalate, the three villagers including villagers of Notun Para, Dhenkichhara, and Noa Para submitted a memorandum titled ‘Appeal for protection of the villagers in trauma for fear of arson of their village and eviction’, addressing to the then Minister of State, Ministry of CHT Affairs, Bir Bahadur Ushwe Sing MP on 8 March 2017. In their appeal, they mentioned about filing up fabricated cases by the land robber, the Lama Rubber Industries Company Limited against the villagers and its various forms of threat and intimidation to the villagers – as part of its ill-effort to occupy the lands of indigenous peoples. Also they mentioned that the Commander of Lama Army Camp had called them to the camp at 12:30 pm on 7 March 2022 and ordered them to leave their villages and go away within one week, otherwise, their villages would be set on fire and then they would be evicted by force.

After submission of their petition in that year, a discussion meeting was held with the State Minister, Bandarban Deputy Commissioner, Lama Upazila Nirbahi Officer, local prominent persons and the victimized villagers on 25 May 2017. Assurance pronounced on part of the State Minister and Officials in administration stating that no lands from the local people would be occupied and that they would be in a position to lead life as their own way. For investigation in context of allegation and appeal the matter was sent to the Assistant Commissioner (Land) and Kanungo.

In that context, Md. Rofiqul Islam, Sub-Inspector (un-armed), submitted his report on investigation to the Superintendent of Police of Bandarban district on 15 June 2017. The investigation report was prepared in such a manner wherein the gravity of eviction trauma had been shown light-weighted and the existing situation of Lama was presented in an irresponsible may. The report mentioned that the villagers of Notun Para, Dhenkichhara Para and Noa Para of No. 303 Doluchhari Mouza have led their life by Jum cultivation in 300-400 acres of lands of 3rd class category including agriculture and gathering bamboos for their livelihood.

At the same time, it was mentioned that Lama Rubber Industries Limited has officially taken lease 3/4 hundred acres of hilly land next to the said land. Thus, the report had maintained recognition of positions of both the sides. The investigating officer further mentioned in his report that as Md. Arif Hossain, Managing Director of the Company forbade the local inhabitants to cultivate in the hills, fear of eviction remained existent there since then. The report also claimed that the area was prevalent with peace and tranquility after holding the meeting with the State Minister, officials and local people.

Bijoy Shankar Chakma, Kanungo of Upazila Land Office, submitted an on-the-spot investigation report, to the Assistant Commissioner (Land) on 3 October 2017. The report contains vague identity of the actual person taken the lands in lease, as per claim of the company and breach of terms and conditions of the lease.

The investigation report also points out that as per Dag No. 1055/24 of Holding No. Rubber/85 under No. 303 Doluchhari Mouza, 25 acres of land given in lease to one Mahmudul Hasan, S/O Abu Sayed Choudhury, for a period of 40 years effecting from 29/03/1994; and as per Dag No. 1055/15 under Holding No. Rubber/92, the land measuring 25 acres taken in lease by one Hafiz Shah Newaz Siddique, S/O Alhaj Md. Mostafa, for a period of 40 years effecting from 07/09/1994. Again, in the list of shareholders, the name of shareholder under serial number 35 appears Mahmudul Hasan whose Father’s name is Abul Mayan. Hence, it is mentioned in the report since the father’s name of the shareholder Mahmudul Hasan appears to be different, so, it could not have been assured whether he is the same person as has been mentioned.

It has been also mentioned in the report that none of the persons has been found existing and direct appearance. The relation between Manager Md. Arif Hossain or Director Md. Kamal Uddin of the Lama Rubber Industries company with the said two persons is not clear.

Besides, it has been also pointed out in the report that rubbing was done onto the text of approval letter, Memo No. Rubber F-2/94/586 dated 24/11/1994 of Bandarban Hill District, whereby the Lama Rubber Industries has been enlisted as a Lessee. Though in the conditions of Lease laid therein state only for Rubber plantation and the project activities are to be completed within 5 years from the date of receiving the grant, no initiative to begin or complete the project has been found even within the last 28 years.

With a view to slip the issue under the carpet, the land development tax has been paid for a period from 2000 to 2016 with the office of the Bohmang Circle in 2016. It is to be mentioned that according to the Section-8 under Part-D of the CHT Accord, there is a provision stating that lease is subject to be cancelled if the land taken in lease is left unused within 10 years from the date of grant. In light of the provision, decision for cancellation of granted leases of such category was taken during the meeting of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on CHT Affairs Ministry held on 20 July 2009 in Khagrachhari and on 18 August 2009 in Rangamati.

Despite the investigation report contains clear evidences of breach of conditions of lease, obscurity in ownership and legality of documents, the Lama Rubber Industries Limited has continued robbing just by the might of power. It is not only 50 acres of land taken in illegal lease as per the claim in papers but Arif Hossain, the company Manager intimated the actual owners of the local inhabitants that the company has taken some 500 acres more beyond it. The matter does not end up there, the company is denuding the forests in series of acres by hiring goons equipped with batons and other lethal weapons. Whatsoever– be it fruit plantation, Jum cultivation lands or cultivable lands of the indigenous peoples, nothing is spared from the land-grabbing aggression of the land robbers.

Kamal Uddin, Director of Lama Rubber Industries and Md. Mehedi Hasan, Manager of Meridian Agro Limited filed a case number-GR-26/20 against 8 indigenous villagers alleging of illegal trespassing into company’s lease land and cutting off and trafficking trees, with the Lama Court of Senior Judicial Magistrate on 3 April 2020. Besides, an appeal for promulgation of Section-144 under Bangladesh Penal Code was also made on part of the Company with the Lama Nirbahi Magistrate against the indigenous villagers.

The indigenous villagers re-appealed to the Lama Upazila Nirbahi Officer seeking remedial measures to the illegal land occupation on 27 January 2021. In the appeal, they mentioned that the company had brought a gang of terrorists and Rohingya goons equipped with batons from outside and cleaned their conserved forest by cutting down all the trees and vegetation on 22 January. But their appeal was not responded with any remedial action.

Meanwhile the Lama Rubber Industries Company and Meridian Company went on a joint venture and cleaned off and forcibly occupied hundred acres of forest lands of the indigenous villagers. The indigenous villagers, once again, submited an appeal to Bir Bahadur Ushwe Sing, the State Minister of Ministry of CHT Affairs to cancel all the Rubber Plots granted to the Lama Rubber Industries and Meridian Company to resist the forcible occupation of lands.

On 14 September 2021, Md. Arif Hossain, Manager of Lama Rubber Industries Company had brought 150 Rohingya laborers along with and threatened of cutting down the plantations of Acacia trees, plantation of banana, mangos and pineapples belonging to 10 indigenous families of Langkom Mro village under Ward No. 9 of Soroi Union of Lama Upazila. The villagers submitted an appeal to the Ministry of CHT Affairs, District Administration and CHT Regional Council for remedial measures.

But so far, no legal step was taken in response to their reasonable demand. Rather, frequent meetings for understanding were arranged with the company and villagers, on part of the administration. To the villagers, each time, assurance was given to the effect that no more attempt for illegal land occupation would be made thenceforward, on part of the local public representatives, high officials from the administration and law & order agencies but of no avail, since the assurance so given has remained as assurance.

In protest against reckless land occupation of the companies, the three villagers went on staging a Human Chain on 20 March 2022. A few days later of the show off, the companies with the employment of outside terrorists and Rohingya baton gang cut down the forest and vegetation, once again. Following this, it was they who set fire at the directive of Md. Kamal Uddin, Managing Director of the company on 26 April 2022.

This fire claimed complete clean off not only the forest lands of the indigenous villagers but also their life & livelihood that got burnt to ashes. The people so victimized due to irreparable loss by fire are now overwhelmed with severe food crisis. Uncertainty came down upon their life and livelihood. However, the issue that matters most is that the despondency and fear of whether they will get back their denuded lands prevails as yet.

The Managing Director of the Company Kamal Uddin told the mass media: “This piece of land has been taken in lease and we have cut it and set fire to plant rubber and cashew nut plants. At this, no damage occurred to any home of the villagers. Homes of all are intact.” Whereas, it appears crystal clear from the protest movement programs and appeals of the villagers that setting fire is only a step of the company towards occupation and they have been practicing tyranny, giving threats and bringing harassments upon the villagers since long ago. On the other end, the environment sustained damage to a large extent as a result of setting fire and alongside the natural source of leading life & livelihood of the indigenous villagers have fallen in uncertainty. All such forcible and illegal activities are being exercised with an ulterior motive directing to forcible occupation of lands from the indigenous peoples.

The villagers want not Relief but Remedy 

Right before this incident, write-ups on the villagers’ crisis were made to public through the press for many times. The scenario full of news on hundred acres of illegal land occupation and waling of local people came to exposure. Was it effective enough to refrain company’s arson, anyway? What will happen to the life and livelihood of the inhabitants living therein? For how long they will be able to withstand depending upon meagre support sent from you and me? This may be noted that some 70 families of Mro and Tripura people would dwell in the three villages. After threatening in 2017, meanwhile, many have moved to the neighboring localities for being gripped with fear.

If the situation continues to prevail, the remaining population will certainly have to get evicted for being helpless. The reasons responsible for the extremely ruining plight of this simple and innocent people include: failure of the State Minister in cancellation of leases even though not being able to fulfill the conditions of lease grant; lacking of honest willingness on part of the district administration in solving the problem by following proper legal procedure; non-transparent position of the local public representatives; and even acceptance of Land Development tax by the authority of Bohmang Circle without scrutiny of the documents, etc.

If the eviction and occupation drill continue to prevail, no jungle will remain untouched in the three hill districts and every nook and corner will get turned into lands of artificial groves of rubber and cashew nut plants. If the green forests are to be conserved and the indigenous peoples are to be given protection, the leases of the companies have to be cancelled and the dispossessed lands will have to be returned to the concerned local people without delay any further. The victimized indigenous peoples are to be given proper compensation on part of the highest administrative level. The companies and the individuals responsible for setting fire without provocation must be brought under legal jurisdiction and awarded highest degree of punishment for their crime. The historical rights of the indigenous peoples over their lands for traditional Jum farming must be ascertained and by no way, the land right issue of the native people be allowed to slip under the carpet.

Sourc: (Translated by the Hill Voice)